My mom was my best friend and sole confidant for my first 20 years of life. Even before my father died (when I was 11) I remember clinging to her legs and bawling when they went out for a Saturday night date.
My first betrayal of Mom was moving to Chicago for college. I’d wanted to stay on the east coast but I didn’t get in to the schools where I’d applied. The displacement knocked us both out of the water. I felt rudderless without her by my side and soon latched on to a best friend, then a series of boyfriends, picking up some very self-destructive addictions along the way. I know now that I was angry with her for letting me grow up so attached to her. I think she was mad at me for leaving. On my visits home we collided awkwardly, trying to catch up but neither of us able to verbalize our disappointment or confusion.
Enter Jay Lynch. Soon after I started dating my now-husband Jay, I overheard him on the phone with his mom hurling some pretty hurtful accusations. I was stunned. I’d never heard a child speak to his mother that way. His rage felt apocryphal and dangerous. And then, even more miraculously, a few hours later she called him back and they just talked. He helped her figure out how to open some software on her computer. They were calm and loving with each other. Unscarred.
I was rarely able to see my mom and dad as less than perfect. And yet, as the years have passed, I recognize that there was a lot of unspoken resentment, especially between Mom and me. A lot of it had to do with her feelings about Jay. The only thing she said definitively about him was:
“He’s a very nice young man and I know he loves you very much. I’m just afraid his voice is louder than yours. I think if he says jump you’ll say how high.”
The truth is, that is a perfect description of my relationship with her. I followed Mom’s every request to the tee. Actually, she didn’t have to request. I tried to anticipate her needs or thoughts and start marching to her drum before she could want for anything. When I did stray from her expectations, we both sunk into a thick, sad silence. I know she wanted me to be independent, but neither of us knew what my voice sounded like on its own.
A few months after I moved in with Jay, Mom came to visit us in Chicago. On her second night there, she stretched out on our new couch and shivered with an inexplicable fever. When she got back to New York, she was diagnosed with leukemia and four months later, she was gone. Jay is the one who held my hand at her funeral. A year after that, he asked my brother for her engagement ring and we got married under a chuppah crafted from her Passover tablecloth.
Lips Shut, Doors Slammed
Our first year of marriage was not exactly serene. I was certain I’d chosen Jay over my mother and I couldn’t run away fast enough from my guilt and grief. I pursed my lips at him and refused to let him know my thoughts. He answered with strident, unabashed anger. My immediate reaction was to leave the room and slam the door behind me.
Fast forward four years and eight months later. I know because I wrote down the date in my notebook. January 21, 2011, our daughter Sonya had her first full-blown temper tantrum. I didn’t want to record it. Sonya’s journal up until then had been about her first steps and smiles and all the disco moves she’s learned. It was a suggestion from my annoyingly perceptive therapist, Suzanne. Suzanne has been urging me to recognize these not-so-nice moments as part of our existence and evolution together.
Sonya’s first tantrum started in the stroller. As I lifted Sonya out of her seat she bucked wildly, screaming, “Noooooo! Noooooo!”
It came over her like a raging squall. Her body writhing and voice grating into a red rasping urgency. I brought her inside and just watched her. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do. I sat on her floor while she thrashed around, and I felt myself harden like a pond under a winter’s first frost. The only way I knew I was still in the room was because I tried to reach out for her coat at one point and felt the slippery nylon brush against my fingers.
When it was over–and it was over at some point–I walked into our living room tingling slightly, amazed that we’d both survived.
I texted Jay at work, “Just went through something CRAZY.”
I know tantrums are a developmental and passing phase. After all, Sonya is 2 and a half. In many ways, I’m jealous that she gets to grunt out her frustrations and throw her body that freely. I’m still learning how to even recognize when I’m feeling that overwrought. Of course as I write this, by myself, in a café playing lite FM, I have a perspective that feels unattainable in the moment of impact. I often spend my therapy sessions trying to sound out exactly what my own rage feels, smells, and tastes like. Trying to dissect my overwhelming urge to flee.
In the past few months, I’ve lost my cool more than I’d like to admit, a few times throwing Sonya’s bottle across the room (away from her) or getting in her face with a nasty yell. I feel so helpless when confronted by her fury. I feel even more helpless realizing I am just as mad. If the earth is made up of 71% water, that’s about the same amount of me that is still trying to float away.
When Fighting Helps
One of the most helpful things that happened was a fight I had actually with my therapist,. I knew that subconsciously I’d been making her into a surrogate mom of sorts. Especially because I really leaned on her for parenting advice. And then one day she forgot the details of my dad’s illness, even though we’d talked about it plenty of times in the past. I was crushed, and left my session fuming silently.
I’m still not sure where I found the courage or audacity to speak up. I got to my next session late and waited until we had five minutes left to mumble, “Oh yeah, there was something I sort of wanted to mention even though it’s not really that important and maybe I shouldn’t even say it…”
I told her that she had disappointed me and I was hurt. Even mad.
Suzanne listened thoughtfully. She nodded and apologized. She’d realized her mistake and did indeed remember my dad’s story. But she was still sorry. And how did I feel, she asked.
“I guess…good? I mean, I’m grateful you’re still here.”
“I’m still here,” she repeated.
For the first time I saw how my anger couldn’t destroy anyone. It didn’t kill my mom and it can’t erase my love for my husband, my daughter, or myself. For the first time I realized the greatest gift I can give my daughter when she feels that fire, is to stay.